How to Become Stronger without Adding Muscle Mass

How to Become Stronger without Adding Muscle Mass

Weight Lifting Experiment #1

Here is the story about how I have spend 6 months testing and optimizing a training program helping athletes to become stronger without adding muscle mass. So far, it has been a success, but it is clear to me that I’m a much better coach than athlete…

Why is this weight lifting experiment important?

Many road cyclists enter the local gym to use weight lifting as a compensation for less training time on the road. Weight lifting is a great way to keep you fit during the winter and that is also why I have used weight lifting in the majority of winter training programs I have made.

Though, it is important to emphasize that there is no scientific proof that weight lifting during the off-season is better than cycling training only.
No matter if you decide to ride 2 hours more per week or choose to add two weekly sessions at the local gym, you’ll probably end up with better performance in both situations.

Confused? Well, ask anyone else and you’ll get a much clearer answer…

Nevertheless, there are some trends that I would like to share with you. I believe weight lifting may play a bigger role in the future for some of the best performing road cyclists.

First of all, it’s important to understand that the training techniques mentioned here might work for professional or semi-professional cyclists. If you ride at a lower level, and I guess that is what most readers do, you would probably benefit more from increased training amount on your bike (in a strict time effective point of view). Yes, you’ll get more value for additional time on your bike than spending one hour lifting weights.

Muscle physiology

Larger muscle cells (that will say larger square diameter) can generate more power.
That is the most commonly known way to increase power.

Though it is not desirable for most road cyclists.

The problem is that a large muscle mass is heavy to carry and there is a dilution of mitochondrias. Thus, an increment of maximal strength made through hypertrophy will probably not result in a better overall cycling performance.

Instead, cyclists should mainly be concerned about increasing their neural strength. I know that many training programs take a different approach, but I disagree in most situations.

As a rule of thumb, road cyclists should never aim for hypertrophy.

It is very unlikely that hypertrophy in itself will help normal riders. Yes, there are a few selective riders where extra muscle mass will give them extra punch in mass sprints etc., but for the majority of riders hypertrophy should be avoided.

Nervous regulation of force

Basically there are two ways to control a muscle’s force.
One way is to recruit more motor unit, which will activate more motor units. You can think of this as your brain tells your muscle to use a larger percentile of your muscle’s fibres to generate power. Motor units are recruited to in order of size. Small motor units are recruited before large motor units. This is called the size principle of recruitment.

The second way to regulate force production is through rate coding. It is an increment of the frequency of impulse signals to the motor unit. When a motor unit is stimulated more frequently, the twitches begin to overlap each other, which will generate a larger force.

This is the basic physiology behind the mechanisms used to increase the force.

So if you want to generate more power, you have three options:
1) It is either to build larger muscle mass, 2) make a better recruitment of motor units or 3) fire a higher frequency of stimuli to the motor neurons.

Because you have to carry your own body weight on your bike, I believe, it is much more interesting to train your neural system. If you’re be able to activate your muscles in a smarter and more efficient way, you can develop a more powerful stroke and increase your endurance.

So there is – at least theoretically – a potential to increase performance.

Even professionals might benefit from this.

In fact, if it is possible to increase strength (without getting injured or decreasing performance in other training sessions), why shouldn’t a professional cyclist take advantage of it?

Weight lifting experiment – #1 (home experiment)

Since the beginning of May 2013, I have practiced weight lifting with the aim to increase strength without adding muscle mass. I wanted to test specific training sessions that were time effective and did not affect performance the following day.

These training sessions should be difficult enough to increase my strength, but so demanding that they stimulate my muscles to grow. Also, it should be possible to recover without suffering from delayed onset muscle soreness the following day.

Normally, I use test pilots for new training ideas (it’s much, much easier for me…), but this time I wanted to get some hands-on experience to get a better feeling of the training philosophy.

To be honest, I find it very difficult to follow a strict training without a specific goal. It’s no problem to get your training done when you feel good and everything is going your way, but it is much more difficult to get through a difficult training session when you’re tired, stressed up or time crunched.

Fact is, I the same challenges like readers here on do: I have a full time job as medical doctor, I have a wife and three small kids (age 1, 4 and 6), an old house to repair and a growing website that has the potential to become a full-time job.

So during the first four months my training sessions were very infrequent (weight lifting 0 to 3 times per week, avg. 1.5 training session per week) and very time effective. Most sessions were shorter than 30 minutes.

Following two performance tests in July and September, I realized, I needed a short term goal to be more committed for my training. To put a little pressure on myself, I submitted for a power lifting competition and, suddenly, began to train a harder and more frequent as I got closer to ‘race day’.

This reminds me what I always teach riders: You MUST have a goal with your training. I’ve seen so many riders perform much better when there is a specific goal with their training.

Since my training volume has been very low it has actually been possible to reduce body weight a bit. In november 2013, I entered my first power lifting competition ever (RAW power lifting: no bench press shirts, wraps or lifting suits of any kind). I took a 13th place: Squat 150kg, bench press 102,5kg and dead lift 200kg. I was far behind the best athletes, but I was very happy with my results.

How to Become Stronger without Adding Muscle Mass

So far this little experiment with very little amount of training has taken me to ‘above average’ performance 1RM lifts in squat, bench press and deadlift. And my body weight hasn’t increase at all. Actually I’ve lost a few pounds.

I know there is room for improvements (technique), but there is not much left for hypertrophy (weighed in on 82,7kg in the 83Kg class…) My fat percentage is low – probably around 9 – so my main focus towards next competition in April 2014, is to become stronger without adding muscle mass.

I plan to continue this experiment a couple of months to see what’s possible with this training method. I think it is very interesting, because if this concept works just as well as I hope, this training method can be applied to many different sports.

So what is the secret?

I’ll go closer into detail in a later post, but here are some of the cornerstones in this training program:

Limit total number of repetitions in working sets
– 10 to 15 lifts per exercise (e.g. squats)

Limit repetitions per set
– Five reps or less. Three reps are fine for bench press and squats. Single lifts are great for dead lifts.

No failure training or forced reps
– Forget about ‘No pain, no gain’ attitude.

Long recovery between sets
– at least 3min, 5+ min if possible.

Set a goal
– always have a goal with your training (both short and long term goals).

As mentioned before, this is not a scientific study, but a home experiment. I apply the best advice from books and articles I have read, personal experience from previous training programs and athletes I have coached, and most importantly listen to feedback from many of my readers that have tested training ideas presented here on the website.

I look forward to keep you posted about my training. If you want to keep me motivated, please leave a comment and/or share this post on Facebook, Twitter etc.

UPDATE 6th of April 2015 – Won a bronze medal at National Championships with a 180kg Squat (body weight 82,5kg) (Watch video below)

25 comments… add one
  • Steve Smith Link

    Wow this is great. This is how I have trained with weights for cycling performance for the last year.

    Thx for the psot.


  • Jon Downey Link

    I will be interested to see how this turns out. I have a big base of weight training and power lifting, and put muscle on pretty quickly. I am a little heavier than you are and have about the same strenght potential.

    My concern with this is injury potential, and at 52 its a real concern for me.

    I have a State Games powerlifting meet in July with a State Games MTB race a week later. Those are two of my A events for 2014.

    I’ll be following your progress closely.

  • johnson Link

    i am appreciating your lessons, but besides cycling i wake up early morning at 5am do my jogging for 1hr 30 min then do my errands using by bike as a means of transport an then later go to gym and push 120kgs using my legs for 45 min, my question is,will that help in any way?

  • Curtis Link

    Brilliant article and website have been using it alot in support of my training this Winter.

    What sort of exercises would you recommend doing in the gym?

  • Louie Link

    Thanks for the article and great tips. I believe weightlifting has it’s place in all sports. I currently do Crossfit type workouts while training for mt. Bike races. My goal is too continue to do both and lose weight. I am 5’11” 205lbs and would like to ride at 190lbs.
    Also as a heart attack survivor I believe it’s important to train the heart in variety of ways to strengthen it.

  • sebastiano Link

    VERY Interesting and perfectly in line with my experience… partly.
    Excellent idea that of competing in RAW PL. Your 1RM vs BW are almost in line with mine, being:
    BW 87.6 kg
    SQ 195 kg
    DL 210 kg
    BP 125 kg
    My “seniority” in the lifts is 2yrs SQ, 6m BP, a bit more DL but my “natural” 1RM was 160kg, while I am truly worthless at benching.
    As opposed to your habits, I train almost twice per day, the only exception being DL (once per week). I also practice Front Squat, where my best is an 8x3x130kgs. I have never tested 1RM.

    Like you mention, my reps are ALWAYS <6. I refer to Prilepin's table to plan and assess working sessions.

    @Jon Downey, my two cents: if you are afraid of injuries, focus on DL. A bird in hand is safer than one overhead. 😉 Squat can be tricky. AND deadlift is much more effective in terms of teaching your muscles how to be explosive.

    @Curtis, my two cents: go for the three bigs like Jesper says and forget about any accessory movement or equipment.

    For those tempted by Olympic Lifting: exciting, brilliant, effective, but… you should have started at the age of 9, including me. I can back squat a weight I will NEVER clean, let alone C&J or Snatch.
    Even my front squat, much lighter, is an unbelievable weight to C&J. So goodbye explosive moves, I would end up untrained if I followed OL training routines.

  • Wojtek Link

    I understand that the amateur will benefit more just by riding instead of weight lifting. But what can one do, if he works until 4 PM, and it is already dark outside – I mean how to you find running activities instead of cycling?

  • Coming from weight training to cycling, I totally agree on the 10 to 15 reps per set. I’m currently using the Wintertraining book and like the structure Jesper has setup.

  • leroy ellis Link

    Weight training is a,load of ballcks if you start’l end up putting that unwanted muscle on .
    And it will defo slow ur bike fitness .
    Stick body condishion its the best .
    iv see to meat heads every day pumping up in the gym .
    Its looks f..cking horrible .
    Bike fitness and running is the best …..

  • Sebastiano Link

    @Louie: have you been given a clean bill of health after the HA, and have you been cleared to non-supervised physical activity?
    Without both, I would definity refrain from any uncontrolled effort. Again my two cents, eh…

  • Thanks for all comments so far. I know that my training philosophy and approach is different from most other coaches.

    @mac – It’s NOT 10 to 15 reps per set. It’s five reps or less per set. I use a total of 10 to 15 reps to limit stimuli for hypertrophy. The above mentioned methods are slightly different from my winter training e-book, but not much. When you’ve learned the basic technic, most sessions in the 12-week winter training program are typically 3 to 5 reps per set.

    @Curtis – In this experiment I’ve used three main exercises (back-squat, bench press and dead lift).

    @leroy – My goal is to test how much I can improve my strength without adding muscle mass. I believe in my theory, but we’ll see how it converts into practice.

  • Louie Link

    @sebastiano yes I have. HA happened at age 34, I am now 42 and have resumed a very active lifestyle that I had before, racing mt. Bikes, running marathons, triathlons, lifting weights etc… I do agree with you, I do not do anything uncontrolled. I like to call it “controlled chaos” I watch what I eat, I pay attention to my body and recover, wear a HR monitor and live life. All I can do.

  • henk Link

    I enjoy your blogs and like your ideas. I’v tried this summer to use your tips with actually good results… But related to this power-excercise, I am a little bit sceptical. It’s a a bit different from what others say. I believe all programs will make you stronger… but which of them make you cycle faster ? I’v read articles where they followed two groups of cyclists (I have the pdf somewhere). The other group did do power excercises, the other not. The group that did power excercises did have significant improvements in terms of watts output. But as I said, the power excerices were a bit different from these ones.

  • Keith Jackson Link

    Very imformative and another good article.
    How does using a rowing machine bear up against pure weight training. Am I correct in thinking that it serves to build muscle and core strength and aids in building the aerobic system.


  • Jeff Link

    I had a coach tell me to do 30reps at 50% of max and with 3 repeats with alternating Squats, leg extension,elect. His idea was to increase power and not bulk. It’s a tough work out but helped alot with hills and break s. Any thoughts on the differences between?

  • Bjørn Anders Johnsen Link

    Hey Jesper!

    In fact is has come a study that now conclude that weight training for cyclist will improve performance.
    It was a PHD study.

    You can read more about at this link if you are interested. The article is on norwegian, but since you are danish I assume you can understand it.
    Take care

  • @Bjørn Anders – Thank you, it’s an interesting and relevant study you refer to. Though, I think it is important to emphasize that the author of the PhD thesis, Bent Rønnestad, is in line with what I say in my article (that we don’t know). Here is a snippet from his conclusion in his PhD thesis: “Concurrent training in well trained cyclists does not appear to offer any performance benefits in terms of overall time trial or sprinting performance. However, the increase in strength with RT did not appear to be detrimental to overall performance.”

  • Geoffrey Link

    >Studies manipulating exercise intensity/workload have shown that increases in MPS are negligible with RE at 20–40% but maximal at 70–90% of one-repetition maximum

    Muscle protein synthesis in response to nutrition and exercise
    P J Atherton1 and K Smith
    J Physiol. Mar 1, 2012; 590(Pt 5): 1049–1057.
    Published online Jan 30, 2012. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2011.225003

  • Geoffrey Link

    >These data suggest that 3SET of resistance exercise is more anabolic than 1SET and may lead to greater increases in myofibrillar protein accretion over time.

    Resistance exercise volume affects myofibrillar protein synthesis and anabolic signalling molecule phosphorylation in young men.
    Burd NA1, Holwerda AM, Selby KC, West DW, Staples AW, Cain NE, Cashaback JG, Potvin JR, Baker SK, Phillips SM.
    J Physiol. 2010 Aug 15;588(Pt 16):3119-30. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2010.192856. Epub 2010 Jun 25.

    Conclusion for now – Maybe Jesper is on the right track. Then again, maybe not! Reference the information about the MPS study in my previous comment.

    More studies are needed. Keep up the nice work Dr Jesper!

  • @Geoffrey – thanks for commenting. Yes, you can find 100’s of studies supporting that heavy lifting (e.g. 70-90% of 1RM) can increase your muscle mass. And many studies that show that more sets are better than just one single set when your goal is hypertrophy. Sorry, but that is not breaking news (I guess most people in the fitness world know this already.) My goal is to find training methods where you can minimize those effects. That’s the challenge. 😉

  • Jon Downey Link

    Since this article was published I have followed the plan religiously and I thought I’d share my progress so far.

    I lift 1x per week, yoga/tai chi 5x week, and mix Cycling and running 4-5x week. My lifts are 80-90% of 1RM for 3-4 sets with 2-5 reps per set. Cycling and running workouts are structured to provide at least 20% of workout time at Z4-5 with the remainder at Z2.

    Bodyweight has stayed the same with minimal calorie counting. Muscle size has increased as well as definition. Aerobic fitness is tracking well and is generally exceeding season milestones.

    Working weights in the gym are steadily increasing and surpassing expectations at this point.

    My weekly structure allows for periodic rest days when needed and I take advantage of those adding an extra rest day if am overly fatigued.

    Overall, this scheme seems to be delivering as expected. I will report back in a few months again if this thread is still active

  • As a full time professional endurance coach in the UK, Jesper I can 100% back up that using weights correctly will never make you big when your aim is strength gain as opposed to “bodybuilding” Amongst my large group of clients from a range of endurance sports, I have several female clients who are 50kg in bodyweight, yet regularly squat 150kg, leg press 500kg and so on. Obviously these strength gains have been built up over a year plus of working with weights under my guidance on a one to one basis, but not one of my endurance sports clients has ever put on any muscle bulk. What they have done though is got faster on less “junk miles” and most importantly, significantly cut down on their rate of injuries. Professionally I advocate the use of structured “strength training” should be a full year thing as opposed to simply used during the winter.

  • UPDATE 6th of April 2015 – Won a bronze medal at National Championships with a 180kg Squat (body weight 82,5kg) (Watch video below)

  • Sebastiano Link

    well done Jesper!!! I see you are on SBD 😉
    No advertising meant, but:

    – how do they compare with old school sleeves in terms of stability?
    – how did you choose your size?


  • Thanks. I’ve used SBD for the last two months and my knees love them. I keep my knees warm and helps to stabilize. Once, I tried to switch left/right and that made them feel quite different (not good). They are pretty tight to pull on and I guess they add a few kg to my lifts. In Denmark most serious lifters in classic powerlifting use them, so I see it as the disc wheel in this sport. Wouldn’t enter a time trial without a disc wheel. I have never tried other brands so I have nothing to compare with.

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